Picture Perfect Patmos

patmos greeceHave you ever fallen in love with a place before you’ve even been there? Several years ago, I became obsessed with the Greek island of Patmos, after reading “The Summer of My Greek Taverna,Tom Stone’s highly addictive account of his adventures operating a taverna on the island.

Stone fell in love with the place and decided to move there with his family after a Greek friend suggested they open a taverna together. Stone’s business partner swindled him but it didn’t diminish his love for Patmos, an island that’s been occupied by the Romans, the Venetians, the Turks and the Italians again from 1912 until 1948.

I’ve been plotting a visit to the place ever since reading the book, but my wife and I had one child, and then another. We finally got to Patmos last week, and unlike many places you fantasize about long before you visit, Patmos did not disappoint.Patmos is a special place. The island is best known for being the site where St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation, but it also has stunning scenery, great hikes, lovely beaches, historic monasteries with frescoes and antiquities that date to the Middle Ages, great food and a bustling port. But there are quite a few Greek islands that have all of those things. What sets Patmos apart, in my mind, is the way locals and tourists mix seamlessly in a relaxed vibe.

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On many Greek islands and indeed many touristic places everywhere, tourists inhabit one universe and locals another, and their paths only cross in order to conduct commercial transactions, i.e. you buy, they sell. I did not have that experience in Patmos.

Unlike Kos, for example, no one thrust a menu in my face, or tried to pressure me into taking a boat excursion. I broke bread and prayed with the monks of St. John’s, I spent hours chatting with locals at Agriolivado Beach, and by the time I left the island, I felt like I knew half of its 3,000 inhabitants. I asked Kostas Chatzakis, a banker I met on the island, if there were any tourist traps to avoid.

“There are none,” he said. “If a place wasn’t any good, we wouldn’t go there and they’d go out of business.”

And he was right. I never had a bad meal on the island, and, in fact, I had some unbelievably good grilled octopus, calamari and souvlaki, always for less than 10 euros. It’s a beautiful island for hikers, a terrific spot for seafood lovers and for those with a love of history and beaches. But what I loved about the place is that I never felt like a tourist and was never treated like one.

The best way I can describe Patmos’s laid-back hospitality is to tell you about Andreas Kalatzis, an artist I met who lives in a tiny, 400 year old house in Hora, right near St. John’s Monastery. I’d heard that an artist had a small studio somewhere in Hora, but couldn’t find it. A neighbor pointed me to Andreas’s tiny house, and he answered the door in his bare feet, which were appropriately splattered in paint.

Kalatzis has a small but impressive gallery in the first floor of the house to demonstrate his work, but he has no sign outside, no website, no email address, and like everyplace else in Patmos, there is no number on the door or street name. After seeing some of the religious icons and other paintings he does, I asked him if he had a business card.

“Sure, I do,” he said, before tearing out a large piece of construction paper from a sketchbook.

patmosHe then filed off a square of paper with a razor, then dumped a big dollop of gold colored paint onto his left hand, and reached for a fine paintbrush with his right. I had no idea what was going on, but in a matter of minutes, he’d painted a beautiful little image of an angel releasing a bird. He dated it, and wrote his contact info on the back before handing it to me. (see right)

“Here you go,” he said. “There’s my business card.”

If you go: You can fly to Kos or Samos on a variety of discount and charter airlines and then Patmos is a three- to four-hour ferry ride from either place. I spent a week in a lovely two-bedroom apartment at the Hotel Australis in Skala for just 50 euros a night in late May (the price goes up deeper in the season). The family who runs this place would give you the shirts off their back.

My favorite places to eat were Pitta Konne for souvlaki and Trechantiri Taverna for seafood. And Jimmy’s Balcony in Hora has the best view of any restaurant I’ve ever been to, and the food and drinks are quite good as well.

I’d recommend using Skala as a base, but make sure you rent a car or moped for at least a day to check out all of the island’s nooks and crannies. My favorite beaches were Psili Ammos, which requires a 30-minute hike, Agriolivado, and Kambos. If you want to have a great meal right on the beach, check out the taverna on Lambi Beach, in the north of Patmos. Be sure to hike up to the Ancient Acropolis, and for a truly unforgettable experience ask the monks at St. John’s Monastery, built in 1088, about attending one of their prayer services.

A Honey Crawl In Samos

jar of honeyI’ve never been a big honey consumer. Sure, I usually have a messy plastic jar of the stuff somewhere in my kitchen, gathering dust, but it usually only comes out when I have a sore throat and want a cup of tea. But shortly after we arrived in Samos, a verdant, breathtakingly gorgeous Greek island in the eastern Aegean, I heard that the island was famous for its excellent honey.

The first time we drove on the dizzying road leading west from Pythagorion out to Kampos, in the island’s west, we passed a slew of small shops and stands selling honey. My interest was piqued but I didn’t bother to stop. Honey is honey, and since I’m used to the gloppy, factory produced cheap stuff that has the consistency of glue, I was doubtful that it could be any better than what I’m used to.loukoumades greek donutsBut the next morning, I changed my mind after trying some loukoumades (right), a delicious Greek treat that resembles a small fried donut, but comes drenched in delicious Samos honey. I realized that I needed to get a jar of the stuff post haste.

“I saw some in the supermarket,” my wife said. “Just go get some.”

But I didn’t want supermarket honey, even if it was the same kind of locally produced stuff sold on the side of the road. I wanted the whole roadside honey experience. So we set off the next day back on the same carsickness-inducing route, which traverses a nice chunk of Samos’s pretty, mountainous green interior, and I stopped at every honey stand I could find.

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At the first shop, we were given only a small taste on toothpicks, which was a bit of a tease, but it was enough to make us want more. It was lighter, sweeter and far tastier than any honey I’d ever had before.

At the second shop we visited, just west of the village of Pirgos, the honey tasted even better, and the owner let us take samples by the spoonful from a big jar of the stuff. While my wife distracted him with questions, I kept dipping into the stuff like an addict, as my children looked at a collection of trapped bees in the shop.

When I couldn’t reasonably sample any more without feeling like a thief, I grabbed a big jar of it and pulled out my wallet before my wife objected.

“We’re only here for a week,” she said. “How much honey can you eat?”

As it turns out, an awful lot. I loved the stuff so much, that I started planning all my meals and snacks around things that I could pour honey on. And I burned through the four honey-drenched sesame bars I bought in less than 48 hours. One afternoon, I asked my wife how some honey might taste on my ham and cheese sandwich, and she tried to set me straight once more.

“Dave,” she said. “You can’t put honey on everything.”

Maybe not, but when in Samos, you can certainly try.

(All photos and videos by Dave Seminara)

Living Naked And Free On The Beach In Greece

nude beach in greece patmosI spent seventeen years in Catholic schools and that’s probably why you’ll never see me lolling about naked on a beach. I have no moral opposition to naturists, but like many others, I’ve observed firsthand that nudists tend to be a bit older, with many old enough to qualify for senior citizens discounts, and some aren’t exactly easy on the eyes. There’s something about the aging process that makes some people want to revert to their natural state as they grow older.

Men hear the words “nude beach” or “clothing optional beach” and their heart rates accelerate a few notches. But are you going to bump into Gisele Bundchen or Brooklyn Decker sunning themselves in the buff on a beach? Probably not.

In the Greek Isles, you can’t help but bump into people who are naked or nearly naked, even without seeking out nude or clothing optional beaches. A couple weeks ago, I saw a few portly, hardy souls, certainly from Northern Europe, looking burned like lobsters and naked as jaybirds on Tigaki Beach in Kos.

Then you also see men who have suits on, but they’re so skimpy they’re almost more of an assault on the eyes than if they were actually naked. I saw a man at the Livadi Geranou beach in Patmos last week that was actually wearing a thong bathing suit reminiscent of the one Borat used in his movie, save the shoulder straps. He appeared to be about 85 years old.The next day, a portly, middle-aged man tried to board a public bus we were on in Patmos with a tiny speedo half pulled down, exposing both pubes and half his ass. A group of Greek schoolchildren on the bus began to point at him and laugh hysterically, and he turned around and got off. (Perhaps the driver told him to get dressed, I’m not sure.)

Then on Saturday, my wife and two young boys and I found ourselves in the company of a whole host of naked people at the Psili Ammos Beach in Patmos, much to our surprise. The beach can only be reached via a boat ride or rigorous 30-minute hike, so it’s apparently an ideal place for naturists to hide out on a very religious island that frowns upon public nudity.

We noticed that a few of the nudists were actually camping on the beach, which isn’t technically legal, and I was curious about the practicalities. But how does one go about interviewing naked people on a beach? Surely approaching them naked, on their terms, would have been best, but I wasn’t going to do that.

I asked my wife, Jen, to accompany me, thinking that I might seem less like a horny stalker if I had a woman with me.

“I don’t know,” she said, clearly dreading the chore. “I feel like you need to give naked people on a beach a really wide berth.”

nude beach in patmos greece nudists naturistsBut she eventually agreed to accompany me on my quest to speak to naked campers. We approached a variety of naked people, feeling very awkward since we had suits on, and none admitted to being campers, though this might be because they thought I was some sort of undercover police officer.

The naturists were all friendly, and obviously not Americans. One older gentleman who we approached, sort of half rolled over when we addressed him and I accidentally caught sight of his junk – clearly a low point in our trip. It’s odd but when you’re speaking to naked people on a beach, you focus so hard on making eye contact that it’s almost ridiculous.

After a few hours on the clothing-optional beach, I told my wife I’d had enough and wanted to leave. And then just as the words left my mouth, a large group of attractive young people came hiking down the hill and plopped down right next to us on the beach. Well, not so fast, I thought. But alas, they turned out to be a wholesome group of Norwegians on a Bible study tour, and they definitely weren’t there to get naked.

For those who are interested in getting naked and camping for free on Greek beaches, check out the Captain Barefoot site, which appears to be a comprehensive guide to Greece for naturists. In some way, I kind of envy people who feel free enough to live naked and free on a remote beach in Greece, but I’m still keeping my suit on.

Read Part 2 of this story, A Prude Bares it All On a Nude Beach in Crete here.

(Photos by Dave Seminara, the second one needed blurring)

10 Tips to avoid breaking your neck or your budget on a moped

On my second day cruising around the stunning interior of the Greek island of Naxos on a moped, I got a little cocky. My wife and I had never rented mopeds before and the caution I exercised on my first day out gradually disintegrated until I was leaning into hairpin turns and passing old jalopies with impunity.

My wife was seated behind me, arms wrapped around my waist. The sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the dazzling blue sky. An invigorating breeze embraced us and the view of the Aegean in the distance made us feel indestructible. And then we crashed.

Easy on the curves, tiger.

I guess we’d taken a curve a bit too fast, or had leaned in a bit too much. I flew off the moped, landing awkwardly on my right leg, and Jen, my wife, sort of toppled onto me. My leg hurt and the impact of the collision blew a whole through my sweater and jacket. But we were OK. The moped, however, was another matter. It had a cracked mirror and wouldn’t start.

Don’t ride two to a moped. It’s safer and if your significant other crashes, they won’t be able to blame you.

We coasted downhill to the nearest village and argued over who should use the phone in the village’s only taverna to call the guy who’d rented us the moped.

“You crashed us, you deal with him,” Jen said.

I made a lame, disregarded assertion that that the bike was to blame but grudgingly agreed to make the call.

When the rental agent shows you how to drive the moped, listen!old moped carrying heavy packagesThe Greek Moped Guy (GMG) said he wasn’t surprised that we’d crashed.

“You weren’t listening when I was trying to show you how to drive it,” he said.

And he was right. I wasn’t listening. Whenever we’re getting directions or instructions of any kind, I will nod as though I’m paying attention, but I tend to tune out and assume my wife will absorb the most important bits of what we’re being told.

“You got that, right?” I’ll say to her.

And in fairness, she had been telling me to slow down. But what self-respecting husband listens to driving instructions from their wife? Certainly, not me.

Don’t expect feel-good, American style customer service in other countries.

“I watched you when you left my place,” the GMG continued. “I could tell you didn’t know how to drive. I never should have rented you the moped to begin with.”

He was probably right but this kind of candor is unheard of in the U.S., where, even if you are a complete bonehead, you’re normally treated cordially. The GMG didn’t ask if we were OK. but he wanted to know what was wrong with the bike.

Take a few photos of the moped before you leave with it, especially if it’s already pretty banged up.

“Oh, it’s not too bad,” I said, lying through my teeth. “Probably just something very minor.”

This was wishful thinking on my part. He had our credit card and the bike was already a banged up, old mess when we got it. Was he going to use this opportunity to retire this one from the fleet and charge me for the price of a whole new moped?

Get the details on roadside assistance.

The GMG told us that he’d pick us up but warned that it would take a few hours and would cost 1 euro per kilometer. Not a bad deal, in retrospect, as we were only about 15 kilometers from town, but I thought we might be able to coast back into town for free. Luckily, my wife was having none of this idea.

“We are NOT going to coast for 15 kilometers,” she said, as I kept the GMG on hold.

“Fine,” I said, handing her the phone. “You talk to him.”

It was a good deal but after absorbing his insults I was done with him.

Wait till after you crash, rendering your bike inoperable, to hit the bar.

We sat outside in the sun and drank a few bottles of Mythos, a Greek beer, while I tried to dress the wounds on my leg with a little help from the waiter.

Never let them see you sweat. (Or limp near the scene of an accident.)

When the GMG arrived in a big pick-up truck a couple hours later, I got up from my seat and immediately felt a sharp pain in my right leg. But as we walked toward him I concealed my grimace and used all of my strength to avoid limping. I was trying to downplay the severity of the incident and didn’t want him to see that I was hurt.

He surveyed the damage to the bike, shook his head dismissively and said to me, “You’re a very bad driver.”

Be careful what credit card you give them.

We drove back to town in silence as the splendor of this magical Cycladic island unfolded outside the pickup truck’s dirty windows. When we returned to his office, I braced myself for an astronomical bill and fretted about the large credit limit on our Visa card. But he wasn’t about to immediately kill the suspense.

“I need to get the bike repaired, come back at the end of the day and I’ll give you the bill,” he said.

Consider walking instead.

We briefly considered renting a moped from another company before eventually electing to walk to the beach we wanted to visit. But my leg was killing me and by the end of the day, I could barely walk. I didn’t want to hobble back to his office so I briefly considered sending Jen back in to see him, before realizing that she would make a very poor Greek moped-guy-emissary. She’s way too nice.

So I hobbled back into the GMG’s office and braced myself as he pulled out his calculator. It was one of those big ones that have scientific notation features — not a good sign. I was expecting him to ask for our first-born child or perhaps a kidney, but was delighted when he handed me a bill for just 45 euros — 15 for the broken mirror and 30 for the tow into town.

Still, I didn’t act too grateful for fear that he would change his mind or begin a new lecture focusing on the shortcomings of my moped driving skills. I just limped out of the shop, wallet and pride still marginally intact.

Photo by Bennorz and Graeme Newcomb on Flickr.